I have a three year old daughter. I also have a 26 year old son, a 24 year old son and a 15 year old son. There’s quite a gap. But we decided we wanted another child and, very quickly, along she came. It was difficult during the pregnancy. I lived in Brighton. Tanya lived in Moscow. As she became more heavily pregnant, I travelled more and more to Moscow. Emily was born in hospital, in Moscow. I was gowned up in scrubs and held my wife’s hand as Emily was born. Everything went well. We had deliberately asked not to know her sex from all the scans, although I always felt she was a girl, from the moment we knew she existed.
Emily spent the first year of her life living in Russia. We went through the excruciating process of getting her a UK passport, eventually resorting to blackmailing the British Embassy in Moscow by telling them we were going to be in Red Square the next morning with a TV crew from Russia Today filming Emily with a placard around her neck saying “I am British but the Queen doesn’t want me”. The Home Office had dragged its feet for weeks and weeks with Emily’s passport application, making us attend interviews, filling in endless forms and being as dilatory as the best Byzantine bureaucrat. We were getting nowhere and Christmas was approaching – we wanted to spend Christmas in the UK. Our PR stunt worked a treat. The Foreign Office, who never interfere in Home Office jurisdiction, interfered in Home Office jurisdiction and within 24 hours of our threat, we went to the Moscow embassy to pick up Emily’s passport.
We travelled to the UK on 17 June 2017, when Tanya and Steven’s UK residency visas came through (another tale of bureaucratic nonsense where we involved the embassy to expedite the result). Our new life began. Emily now grows up in the UK. When my sons were born, I worked for a big advertising firm. I was a corporate warrior. This time, I am my own boss. I have had two decades of experience bringing up children. I am no longer making it all up as I go along. These two factors make a huge difference. Where I always made time to spend with my sons, never missed any stuff at school and loved my weekends and evenings with them, I did not raise them every hour of the day. Their mum did that. I was at work. But this time, with Emily, I work from home. So I am around her all the time. And she is around me all the time. Especially now we are in lock down with the Covid-19 pandemic changing our world. What’s it like second time around? What’s it like being the father of a very young child after having already ‘been there, done that’?
I am more relaxed. Much more relaxed, period. I have no worries about whether she is behind this or underdeveloped in that – you know they get there in the end, as long as there’s nothing seriously awry. That’s all that matters. It’s not a race. It’s not life or death if she can’t ride a bicycle by the age of 18 months or compose a concerto at four. No one in their right mind should be worrying about this nonsense. Enjoy each other. Play. It’s amazing what they soak up. The first time around, I put pressure on my eldest son. He felt the pressure to perform. I remember the day he was waiting for his GCSE results, We were on holiday with my brother’s family in Portugal. Sam was being quite elusive and avoiding calling school for his results. When I enquired why, he said, bitterly, that whatever he got, it wouldn’t be good enough for me. My heart melted. It was such a terrible burden to put on him. I went out and brought some bubbly at the local shop. When I came back, he had his results. He had done brilliantly and we opened the Champagne – which we would have opened whatever. But what he said really gave me pause for thought: what a rotten dad I had been to make him feel that whatever he achieved it would never be good enough. What a classic first child experience – to be the channel for your dad’s frustrated ambitions, a vessel through which to ‘have another go’. I learnt a lot that day in Portugal.
Emily is the beneficiary of the many, many humbling lessons my sons have taught me. I hope I am gentler, less demanding, more able to let my children go and be themselves. I do not monitor or measure and I only care that we bring Emily up to be self reliant, imaginative, clever, eloquent, sociable, funny, serious, athletic, well read, well travelled, humble, considerate, self-confident, pious….oops, there I go again. No, David, no. Nowadays, I prefer to relax. I choose to relax about her progress in life. As long as we give her opportunities to grow and encourage her gently to experiment and play, that’s good enough.
Remembering back to a bright Spring morning watching my two eldest sons playing in the long grass of the ‘secret garden’ – a walled garden that had been left to run wild at the back of the Bishop of Fulham’s Palace in West London – I wondered to myself if it got any better than this. I was happy. Seeing the boys running amongst the tall, still damp, dewy grass stalks, was blissful. With Emily, there are more of these times. Because I have the time. The backdrop isn’t often as spectacular as the Palace garden – in fact, it’s usually on the sofa or just walking down the road to Hove beach – but the experience is there. This is as good as it gets, watching and being part of your child’s make believe world, yet apart from it, observing and, most moving of all, feeling the feelings of being there, having a privileged glimpse of your child’s innocence at play in the world.
There is no pressure to being a parent. If you let go. I see so many of my friends and relations who cannot let go. Their children are a ‘project’. However old their children are, there is always one more financial obligation, one more student loan to be paid off, one more child to ‘put’ through university, one more leg up onto the housing ladder, one more exam “we need to be home to make sure the revision is done”, one more university place to be negotiated, one more move back home before they are ready to fly off into the world. Leave them alone! Their life is not your project. It is their project. As my eldest son packed his rucksack for the Ten Tors Challenge across Dartmoor, aged fifteen, I asked him if he had remembered his toothbrush and his trangia: “Dad, let me make my own mistakes”, he wisely replied. Ever since that day, I have.
Let them make their own mistakes. You cannot protect them from the world for ever. If you constantly shield them from life they will grow up, guess what, unable to look after themselves. I do not want to infantilise my children. I want to let them grow up. It is the hardest thing because every instinct inside you screams to protect. But by not protecting them, you let them grow. And it is your job to help them to grow. I have learnt this. It has taken me three children to learn, but it is learnt none the less. Lucky Emily.